One of the things I like about middle and later Discworld novels is Terry Pratchett’s willingness to start a farce and then just keep going with it, well past the point where a more cautious or less experienced author would have reined in his plot and characters. I noted this in particular in The Fifth Elephant, when Pratchett gives considerable authority to a character who is utterly unsuited for it and he just keeps going, letting the character dig himself ever deeper in as the absurdities multiply.
Monstrous Regiment offers an extended send-up of military life, and it starts with an element that is not obviously part of a farce: a teenage girl cuts her hair, dresses up like a boy, and joins the army to get out of her no-horse village. Polly, who decides to call herself Oliver in the army, comes from Borogravia, a small country with a militant reputation, an eccentric god, a Duchess who hasn’t been seen in decades, and a host of enemies surrounding it.
The war is not going well, despite official proclamations, as evidenced by the veterans that Polly’s regiment sees streaming back from the front missing various major body parts and telling them in no uncertain terms to turn around. The very abbreviated course of training is another indicator, as is the army’s sudden willingness to sign up not just Polly but also a troll, an Igor, and a vampire. There’s good-natured fun had about the essential cluelessness of all officers (“Who’s looking after the rupert? [asked the corporal]. … The corporal sighed. “The officer,” he explained. “They’re all called Rupert of Rodney or Tristram or something. They get better grub than you do.” p. 100) Crafty sergeants, corrupt quartermasters, and a bullying noncom who’s also a political informer all play their appointed roles.
The coalition the Borogravians are fighting is led by Zlobenia, a neighboring country whose prince has a claim to the Borogravian throne based on the premise that the long unseen Duchess has in fact been dead these last decades. Behind Zlobenia is the might of Ankh-Morpork. The great city is taking sides in a minor dispute because the Borogravians’ god has declared the semaphore towers that Ankh-Morpork uses for long-distance communication to be an Abomination, and the Borogravians chopped down a key line that ran through their territory. Sam Vimes is attached to the troops from Ankh-Morpork, and while he is not commanding troops, he is very definitely pulling strings behind the scenes.
This war also sees the first press correspondents known on Discworld, and they make the Monstrous Regiment famous. A group of Zlobenian dragoons turned up at an inn where the new recruits had bedded down for a night. Through good luck, unscrupulousness, and Polly’s experience as a barmaid used to dealing with handsy customers, the young soldiers best the dragoons and leave them tied up and stark naked. The Times gets wind of the incident and writes it up, sending the story back to Ankh-Morpork’s teeming hordes of readers. Unbeknownst to either the Times or the regiment, the captain of the dragoons was none other than the prince of Zlobenia, somewhat incognito.
“But you saw him when we arrived the other day,” [said Vimes to Angua, the werewolf who is also part of the Night Watch]. “What did you think of him? Just between ourselves.”
“An arrogant son-of-a-bitch, sir, and I know what I’m talking about. The kind of man who thinks he knows what a woman likes and it’s himself. All very friendly right up until they say no.” (p. 157)
The leader of the other side has it in for the regiment; Vimes has a sneaking admiration for them, and doesn’t really want to wipe out the Borogravian army; and their canny sergeant gives them unexpected advantages. With that, Monstrous Regiment is off towards its conclusion.
There are many other interesting observations along the way. Polly does a bit of growing up:
…the little lesson that life sometimes rams home with a stick: you are not the only one watching the world. Other people are people; while you watch them they watch you, and they think about you while you think about them. The world isn’t just about you. (p. 148–49)
On the power of language:
“Yeah, well, you’re at home with the writin’ and readin’,” grumbled [Sgt.] Jackrum. “You can’t trust people who do that stuff. They mess around with the world, and it turns out everything you know is wrong. (p. 257)
On the increasingly restrictive commandments issued by the Borogravian deity:
“So where do they come from?” [said Polly.]
“From your fear …” [said Wazzer, until then the regiment’s most fervent believer]. “They come from the part that hates the Other, that will not change. They come from the sum of all your pettiness, and stupidity and dullness. You fear tomorrow, and you’ve made your fear your god. The Duchess knows this. (p. 362)
Pratchett also packs a lot about privilege, society and morality into a single paragraph:
Polly had never asked too many questions about the Girls’ Working School. She was, by definition, a Good Girl. Her father was an influential man in the community, and she worked hard, she didn’t have much to do with men and, most importantly, she was … well, smart. She was bright enough to do what a lot of other people did in the chronic reason-free insanity that was everyday life in Munz. She knew what to see and what to ignore, when to obey and when to merely present the face of obedience, when to speak and when to keep her thoughts to herself. She learned the ways of the survivor. Most people did. But if you rebelled, or were merely dangerously honest, or had the wrong kind of illness, or were not wanted, or were a girl who liked boys more than the old women thought you should and, worse, were not good at counting … then the school was your destination. (p. 275)
There’s quite a bit more in the book, including a farce that builds over the entire course of the novel, whose full extent only becomes clear at the very end. There are touching moments, and funny moments; there were some that I found unsettling in the choices that the coalition makes that would be problematic if anyone less decent than Commander Vimes were in charge. At nearly 500 pages, Monstrous Regiment is not as tightly constructed as earlier Discworld books. It gains from the accumulation of detail, and while nothing is obviously unnecessary and I am not sure what I would cut, crispness and pithiness are virtues of many books in the series, but Monstrous Regiment feels a little less careful. There’s a satisfying ending, of course, with enough surprises and wisdom of sergeants for a whole coalition of armies.